Risks and benefits of nicotine to aid smoking cessation in pregnancy

Drug Saf. 2001;24(4):277-322. doi: 10.2165/00002018-200124040-00005.


Cigarette smoking during pregnancy is the single largest modifiable risk for pregnancy-related morbidity and mortality in the US. Addiction to nicotine prevents many pregnant women who wish to quit smoking from doing so. The safety and efficacy of nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) for smoking cessation during pregnancy have not been well studied. Nicotine is classified by the US Food and Drug Administration as a Pregnancy Category D drug. Animal studies indicate that nicotine adversely affects the developing fetal CNS, and nicotine effects on the brain may be involved in the pathophysiology of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). It has been assumed that the cardiovascular effects of nicotine resulting in reduced blood flow to the placenta (uteroplacental insufficiency) is the predominant mechanism of the reproductive toxicity of cigarette smoking during pregnancy. Short term high doses of nicotine in pregnant animals do adversely affect the maternal and fetal cardiovascular systems. However, studies of the acute effects of NRT in pregnant humans indicate that nicotine alone has minimal effects upon the maternal and fetal cardiovascular systems. Cigarette smoking delivers thousands of chemicals, some of which are well documented reproductive toxins (e.g. carbon monoxide and lead). A myriad of cellular and molecular biological abnormalities have been documented in placentas, fetuses, and newborns of pregnant women who smoke. The cumulative abnormalities produced by the various toxins in cigarette smoke are probably responsible for the numerous adverse reproductive outcomes associated with smoking. It is doubtful that the reproductive toxicity of cigarette smoking is primarily related to nicotine. We recommend the following. Efficacy trials of NRT as adjunctive therapy for smoking cessation during pregnancy should be conducted. The initial dose of nicotine in NRT should be similar to the dose of nicotine that the pregnant woman received from smoking. Intermittent-use formulations of NRT (gum, spray, inhaler) are preferred because the total dose of nicotine delivered to the fetus will be less than with continuous-use formulations (transdermal patch). A national registry for NRT use during pregnancy should be created to prospectively collect obstetrical outcome data from NRT efficacy trials and from individual use. The goal of this registry would be to determine the safety of NRT use during pregnancy, especially with respect to uncommon outcomes such as placental abruption. Finally, our review of the data indicate that minimal amounts of nicotine are excreted into breast milk and that NRT can be safely used by breast-feeding mothers.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Female
  • Fetus / drug effects
  • Humans
  • Nicotine / adverse effects*
  • Nicotine / pharmacokinetics
  • Nicotine / pharmacology
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnancy Complications*
  • Rats
  • Risk Assessment*
  • Smoking Cessation*


  • Nicotine